Understanding Children's Tantrums

When your child has a tantrum, you may feel a loss of control as well as confusion over what to do to help your child. Tantrums are a normal facet of early childhood development, but here are some reasons why they happen, and what you can do to help.

Why do tantrums happen?

  • A young child’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. The prefrontal cortex is associated with self-control, and stress can overwhelm this underdeveloped part of the brain.
  • Tantrums are most common in toddlers who don’t yet have the vocabulary to express their feelings in words. They get frustrated at not being understood, or not being able to communicate what they want.
  • Frequent reasons for tantrums are anxiety, hunger, tiredness, being uncomfortable, sensory processing issues, or a desire for independence.
  • Children usually aren’t having a tantrum on purpose. They may have inadvertently learned that a meltdown is what gets them what they want.

Tips to help your child deal with tantrums

Try these tips to help your child before, during, and after a tantrum. Above all, remain calm and compassionate. Ensure your child knows you love them and are there to keep them safe.

  • Understand your child’s tantrum triggers. For example, avoid taking them on errands close to mealtimes when they may be hungry and cranky.
  • Praise positive behavior. If you notice your child is doing something positive like sharing a toy with a sibling or saying please, reinforce this behavior with praise.
  • Give your child a small amount of control. Often, tantrums arise because a child wants to do something on their own, or make their own decision. Try letting your child make independent decisions in a controlled environment. For example, you can ask them to choose between three movies for family movie night, or let them pick where they want to go on a neighborhood walk.
  • Try distraction. Often, a tantrum can be avoided by diverting your child’s attention at the right moment, or moving them to a different location.
  • Stay calm during a tantrum. If your child is having a tantrum, resist the urge to give in and inadvertently reinforce the behavior. Instead, try to ignore it or move your child to a different area. Some parents also use a time-out strategy, with older children being told they can return when they are calm. This gives the child a sense of control over the situation and their emotions.
  • Discuss your child’s feelings. After a tantrum has passed, give your child a hug and have an empathetic, two-way conversation about the experience with them. This can help you both understand what happened and why, and figure out what to do next time.
  • Teach your child coping strategies. When your child is calm, help them practice some self-soothing behaviors for the next time they feel angry or anxious, such as singing their favorite song, leaving the room, or taking three deep breaths.

Tantrums usually stop in time, as a child grows and builds their cooperation, communication, and emotional regulation skills. These tips can help you understand your child’s tantrums, and help them to get through it.